I’ve run across a new researcher who has an interesting take on the elements of love. He has three categories that describe the different components that form relationships. His name is Robert J. Sternberg and he points to intimacy, passion and commitment and how they function in relationship formation.
Passion refers to erotic attraction, or feelings of being in love. The romantic ideal of love portrayed in many movies and songs embodies the element of passion. This is the aspect of love most closely associated with sexuality and extreme feelings. Love that includes passion without intimacy or commitment is called infatuation.
Intimacy includes elements of love that promote connection and closeness. We would further describe intimacy as feelings of attachment. It characterizes one’s willingness to trust another, to value support and to care about the other’s well-being. In intimacy, we find the ease and security that can tighten the bond.
Intimacy without the other two elements is what Sternberg calls “liking.” Intimacy with friends is that soul-to-soul kind of love — a real gift to be protected when found. It must be nurtured and can take a long time to build.
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Commitment refers to making a decision to sustain a relationship with your loved one. It happens in the special moment when both realize they love each other and commit to give and to receive that love. A pact is made of mutual understanding to sustain and to protect the very real object shared between the two.
This promise, which characterizes committed relationships, requires loyalty and hard work. I’m reminded of the U.S. Marines. Their motto, “Semper Fidelis,” means “always faithful.” This commitment of faithfulness from one Marine to the other fortifies them for battle, victory and bringing everyone home.
Sternberg names how combinations of these three elements — intimacy, passion and commitment — can be broken down into other known forms of love. We’ve already described infatuation and liking. According to Sternberg, romantic love has passion and intimacy, but not commitment. He calls love with commitment, but not passion or intimacy, “empty love.” I fear too many marriages are like this.
If we have commitment and intimacy like that of friends, this is called “companionate love.” For me, this describes the problem I commonly hear when people say, “I love him/her, but I’m not in love.” When we’ve lost the passion, we have to rely on the strength of character of individuals to endure or enjoy a profound friendship.
“Consummate love” is the term Sternberg uses to describe the couple that has all three. These couples are thought of as the perfect couple. And yet, even these couples will need to attend to each aspect of love in their relationship, for each requires attention and nurturing.
A final quote from Sternberg, “The amount of love one experiences depends on the absolute strength of these three components, and the type of love one experiences depends on their strengths relative to each other.”
For your healthy coupling, commit to your partner, attend to your intimacy and kindle the flame of passion creatively and courageously.